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Critic's Notebook: Gustavo Dudamel wraps up an ambitious year

The Los Angeles Philharmonic music director conducted like crazy in 2012. He's not stopping to catch his breath.

January 01, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil in Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Oct. 04, 2012.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil in Beethoven's "Eroica"… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — The hair jokes may have grown old, what with a slight fleck of gray peeking through his now shortened and tamed curls. The Dude nickname is pretty much over as well. And no longer is Gustavo Dudamel as tempted to head for Pink's hot dog stand after conducting at Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Hollywood Bowl as he was when he first became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009. He is more likely to rush home to be with his 20-month-old son, Martín, and wind down by doing his own cooking.

But however much the 31-year-old Venezuelan is now a well-established fixture on the classical music scene, not only hasn't he slowed down, but Dudamel has just completed what may be the single most audaciously ambitious year ever attempted by a conductor.

With little regard for what may seem realistic, he has even attempted this at a time when just about everyone in classical music is being asked to cut back and in the process helped make the L.A. Phil the most successful American orchestra. As for the rest of the world, Dudamel's remarkable capacity to think big and to get much of what he wants makes him impossible to ignore.

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Not everything has worked — far from it. No one can do it all, and where such hyperactivity will lead, be it greatness or burnout, cannot be predicted. We have no science with which we can chart the progress of artistic maturity, and Dudamel is the fastest-moving target in the business. But his capacity for work is as much a phenomenon as his famed ability to lift the spirits of musicians and audiences no matter how jaded or complacent.

Dudamel began the year in Los Angeles with an unprecedented feat of conducting all the Mahler symphonies over a single two-week period (then immediately repeating it on another continent). By December, he was collecting America's highest classical music honor, named Musical America's 2013 Musician of the Year. He stormed New York, London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Milan, and cinemas everywhere.

Biggest of all was the sight on the movie screen of Dudamel and a sea of singers for an ecstatic performance of what is usually called Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" when it was beamed live from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, in February. Dudamel's gargantuan undertaking involved the L.A. Phil and his other orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, along with a chorus of 1,200, the singers standing on rickety risers that reached the roof of the tall Teresa Carreno Concert Hall.

That performance was the culmination of Dudamel's Mahler Project, a complete cycle in Los Angeles followed by another in Caracas of the Austrian composer's nine epic symphonies (and part of the unfinished apocalyptic Tenth). Counting all the performance and rehearsal time, Dudamel undertook over 27 nonstop days in L.A. and Caracas nearly 100 hours of conducting some of the most emotionally draining music ever written.

When asked about Dudamel's project, the famously indefatigable Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who once conducted concerts in three countries in a single day, rolled his eyes and pronounced it crazy.

Dudamel's performances could be uneven or overeager — especially scores (such as of the Fourth and the Seventh) with which the conductor has not had much experience — and contained but spotty brilliance.

But his interpretations of other symphonies, especially the Fifth (the piece that won him a conducting competition in Germany in 2003) and the Ninth (which he toured with the L.A. Phil in Europe last year), have deepened and were suffused with inspiration. By the time the Mahler Project was over, Dudamel was in an inevitable state of near collapse from mental, physical and spiritual exhaustion.

Still, the year had hardly begun and his calendar showed upcoming appearances in Los Angeles and Caracas along with the musical capitals of the world. By year's end, Dudamel could look back at the kind of coveted big-time gigs, constant output of recordings and visibility that eminent conductors work a lifetime for yet rarely achieve. He also took home a Grammy.

He could look back, that is, if Dudamel had the time or inclination to look back. With an unending stream of new performances and new projects to prepare for (including the difficult feat of memorizing nearly all scores he conducts), he is necessarily occupied, he says, with the present and the future, not the past.

He was, in fact, startled to hear his year's worth of activity recounted to him last month as he happily devoured a bowl of mussels at an Upper West Side restaurant in New York popular with musicians.

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